September 15, 1999

Religious liberty is basic
human right, conference affirms

___By Robert O'Brien
___Cooperative Baptist Fellowship
___LONDON (ABP)--In a world full of intolerance, even "mere toleration" of other faiths isn't enough, speakers said during a Baptist-sponsored conference in London.
___Speakers at the international conference highlighted problems of injustice and inequity around the world, focusing on the conference theme--"Beyond Mere Toleration: Religious Liberty as a Basic Human Right."
libertysm___The conference, attended by 100 participants from a dozen countries and religious backgrounds, also prompted plans for future endeavors, including upcoming human-needs and human-rights projects in Armenia, Poland, Russia, Sweden and Africa.
___"This wasn't just a Baptist or British meeting," declared James Dunn, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, co-sponsor of the event along with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. "It was a world meeting that looked at religious liberty and human-rights issues from a variety of perspectives and declared that we should not merely tolerate those who are different from us, but value, respect and empower them."
___"Unless every person is valuable, there can be no peace," said Kimete Basha, a native of Kosovo and wife of the Albanian ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg. She is spearheading efforts to bring reconciliation between Serbs and her battered Albanian and Kosovar people to offset hatred and the "spirit of vendetta."
___Basha and other speakers urged people of faith to shun arrogance, persecution, segregation, violence and protectionism and practice humility, compassion and justice in a multi-colored world.
___Speakers explored the plight of various groups that are either not tolerated or barely tolerated, including the poor, racial minorities and religious minorities.
___Stanley Mogoba of South Africa joined other speakers urging industrialized nations to do something about vast economic disparity between the world's rich and poor.
___"As we enter the third millennium of Christianity, are we only going to drift along?" asked Mogoba, a Methodist bishop, president of the Pan Africanist Congress and a member of South Africa's parliament.
___Sharing resources is the world's largest problem, and poor countries must get help to develop sustainable economies, said Mogoba, an advocate of "Jubilee 2000," a global movement urging the world's richest nations to "adjust the scales" of justice by canceling debts owed by poor countries.
___Lonnie Turner, a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship representative and one of the conference planners, echoed Mogoba.
___"Forty-one highly indebted poor countries borrow to service their debt, and service their debt to borrow, so they can earn the privilege to increase their debt," Turner said. "It's a vicious cycle. Countries starve their children to pay their debt."
___Sociologist Eileen Barker of London noted that removal of religious freedom around the world from new or "strange" religious groups fractures the principle of religious freedom and creates an atmosphere for removal of those rights from older, more established religions.
___Even older religious groups --such as Baptists, Assemblies of God and Russian Catholics --have been singled out for persecution and restrictive legislation in various countries, she noted.
___"We subscribe to a culture that describes these people as 'other,'" said Barker, a faculty member of the London School of Economics and internationally recognized expert in new religious movements. "We go along with constructing and maintaining an image that demonizes the small and strange. We have to remember that members of these groups are humans too."
___A panel made up of Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders urged people of faith to respect freedom for truth with a small "t," rather than only "The Truth" as they perceive it.
___"We can do this without wishy-washy compromise about what we believe," said panelist Charles Wellborn, a Baptist and professor emeritus of religion at Florida State University. "Every person is entitled and compelled to proclaim his faith and free to convert if he chooses."
___"Religious 'toleration' satisfies neither my spiritual nor my intellectual conscience, and it's an offensive word to me," Wellborn said. "If some power has the right to grant toleration, it has the right in theory to take it away."


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